Live review: Usher at the Staples Center
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Usher Raymond clearly wants to fill the shoes of Michael Jackson. The R&B veteran suggested this rather literally at one point in his sprawling, athletic set Thursday night at Staples Center, when a pair of Jacko-inspired sparkly boots materialized onstage. “Do I have your permission?” he asked the crowd, clearly knowing they’d settle for nothing less than this metaphor-heavy costume change.
It was cocky, a bit ghoulish and not yet deserved — Usher’s long catalog has many hugely pleasurable hits but nothing as culturally earth-shaking as “Billie Jean.” But try and think of any other male star who can even tie the laces on that legacy today — Justin Timberlake is founding fictional Facebooks on film; Ne-Yo focused more writing and producing; Eminem lacks the physical artistry.
For better or worse, Usher is the last man standing in the field of nimble, pop-theater R&B. And he’s making the most of this unique lack of competition.
In 2004, Usher had an almost unprecedented chart run with his album “Confessions,” twice replacing himself atop the singles charts and becoming the first act since the Beatles to have the two bestselling singles in a given year. Afterward, though, he struggled to find his creative footing — reception for his 2008 album “Here I Stand” was tepid at best.
But at Staples, he reasserted his longstanding claim to Jacko’s vision of a genre cross-pollinating, sci-fi-indebted R&B utopia — red jacket included. Opening with the “Raymond Vs. Raymond” kickoff “Monstar,” Usher emerged atop a floating platform in the middle of the arena, asking in the lyrics, “Do you want all of me?” before descending into a posse of dancer-ninjas. Spectacle is a good look for him — at 32, Usher remains one of the best dancers in pop, and he knows how to pace a set to showcase his vocal and bodily virtuosity.
Although the stagecraft felt more akin to “Raymond’s” ravey timbres, his set reached surprisingly deep in his catalog. “Nice & Slow,” from 1997’s “My Way,” wrung pheromonal tension from its acoustic guitar flourishes. “Confessions” was well represented — the crunk crossover “Yeah!” will be on loop in college bars until the oceans run red with Four Loko, and “Caught Up’s” vintage breakbeat crackled with eerie vocal harmonies.
Given how embattled his life has been of late (the title “Raymond Vs. Raymond” alludes to both a recent divorce and a more esoteric artistic schism), Usher kept a genial, goofy showmanship alongside the pyrotechnics. He smirked his way through a skit where he gets caught cheating with groupies and sent one young lady home aflutter when he brought her onstage for a slow grind on a couch.
The slow jams from “Raymond” aren’t his best — “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home)” is saccharine compared with the blown-out intimacies of “Burn.” But the bangers defy cynicism, if only by getting there first. Will.I.Am dropped by for his verse on the glorious, dumb-as-a-rock floor-filler “OMG” to close the night, and as the fireworks and strobes burst around him on a vaulted riser, Usher cracked a sly smile over his shoulder to the crowd. He seemed to know he’s the only one left who’s doing this.
Not that openers Trey Songz and Miguel didn’t make an eager go at it. Songz is inescapable on radio for good reason — his suave rap-singing on “Say Ahh” and the bonkers “I Invented Sex” goes down like vintage Dom Perignon. The intriguing young newcomer Miguel played it a bit spookier, donning a Telecaster for his breakout single “All I Want Is You,” which left plenty of room for his spectral falsetto.
-- August Brown
Top photo: Usher and dancers at the Staples Center. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times